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Why Russia Says 'Nyet' to the U.S.

Author: Rajan Menon, Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations, Lehigh University; Fellow, New America Foundation
March 12, 2003
Chicago Tribune

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The uncertainty is over. It's apparent that Russia will veto the UN resolution for an attack on Iraq if it comes up for vote. Moscow wants continued inspections for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and opposes any rush to authorize the use of force.

This is dismaying news to the Bush administration, which is convinced that more inspections will simply enable Saddam Hussein to play shell games.

Why, then, did Moscow choose to break ranks when Russian President Vladimir Putin, the arch-realist, has worked so hard after Sept. 11 to forge a bond with President Bush?

The first reason is psychological. In a little more than a decade, Russia's economic and military power has plummeted and it has lost its superpower status. That's a tremendous change. It has been hard for Russians to accept it and they are more than a little irritated about what they see as American cockiness and triumphalism. Now that Russia is a democracy, these sentiments filter upward and influence the leadership.

Second, the prospect of a world where the U.S. rules the roost and acts without restraint is particularly galling to the Russian national security bureaucracy— the military and secret police— where distrust of the U.S. runs particularly high. These institutions, particularly the intelligence services, have a great deal of clout in Putin's Russia— and they're making themselves heard.

Third, Russia, like other second-order powers, cannot afford to see the U.S. brush international organizations aside. Their most effective way of restraining what the French call the American "hyperpower" is through a Lilliputian strategy aimed at getting the U.S. to act in and through global institutions and not as a lone ranger. The Bush administration's repeated statements that it does not need the UN's approval to go to war against Iraq, while true in a literal sense, are unwelcome to Russian ears.

The fourth reason for Russia's opposition to using war for regime change in Iraq is never mentioned by Moscow because to do so would be to acknowledge it, and that's the Islamic factor. Muslims account for 18 percent of Russia's population of 148 million people. They live in the North Caucasus and in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, two large republics deep in the country's interior. The Tatars are, in fact, Russia's second largest nationality. Then there are six post-Soviet Muslim states on Russia's southern border: Azerbaijan and the five so-called "stans" of Central Asia.

Islam, in some instances in its radical variants, is now an integral part of politics within and around Russia. An American war against Iraq followed by a prolonged occupation could inflame the Muslim world. In the era of globalization, the ripple effects could travel fast and far, bringing upheaval to Russia and its southern flank. No Russian leader wants that, especially because Chechnya, where Islamic fundamentalists are entrenched, is already a bloody quagmire.

For Putin, then, the bottom line is this: The hazards of supporting the U.S. in a war that is unpopular in much of the world and anathema to most Muslims are clear and serious. Significant and tangible displays of American gratitude for Russia's support might make the risks worth running. But the current direction of the U.S. economy and the history of American policy toward Russia over the past decade can hardly make the Russian leader confident about big payoffs. Putin may get pats on the back, kind words, and invitations to Camp David from Bush were he to stand alongside the U.S. against Hussein. But Putin needs more than praise and pageantry to go out on a limb.

These are Putin's calculations, and as a former KGB officer he knows the arithmetic of power. The experts' confident claim that Russia had no choice but to join the United States against Iraq was more than faulty analysis. It was also hubristic.


Rajan Menon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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